December — the most wonderful time of the year. While many are shopping for gifts or preparing holiday feasts, charitable organizations across the North Fork are deep in the works of creating a cheerful season for all.
“As we approach the winter months, it can be tough for a lot of our clients,” said Cathy Demeroto, executive director of The Center for Advocacy, Support and Transformation in Southold. “We see more people coming in for help over the winter months. That’s why our holiday events are so important to help us meet people’s basic needs.”
Several charitable organizations throughout the North Fork offer services to those in trying situations. For many, the holiday season is not only when they see the largest influx of those needing their services, but also when they receive the most financial support — often funding their endeavors for the entirety of the following year.
For Tia Fulford, founder and executive director of the Butterfly Effect Project, the season of giving means inclusivity.
“The holiday season is a magical time of year for so many people and I feel like it’s important that no one is left out,” Fulford said.
Fulford’s Butterfly Effect Project is a not-for-profit, community-oriented organization that provides opportunities for young children empowering them by offering the necessary tools needed to achieve emotionally stable and self-confident futures.
The organization began in late 2013 in Riverhead as a passion project for Fulford, who wanted to provide a fair chance for every girl to find success “to broaden their horizons by eliminating obstacles such as mobility, cultural differences and finances,” according to their mission statement.
After almost 10 years, the Butterfly Effect Project amassed over 600 girls and boys — the chapter for boys began last year — across 17 chapters throughout Suffolk County. Currently, 280 of these butterflies and dragonflies are from Riverhead.
“By August, most of our funding has been used up and we are scraping the bottom of the barrel for money,” Fulford explained. “We send a lot of girls to camp throughout the summer and we support a lot of girls who are leaving for college. At that time we are also beginning to plan for holidays — that’s when we’re making connections for both Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
Throughout December, The Butterfly Effect Project offers an “adopt a butterfly/dragonfly” campaign to provide presents for these children during the holiday season. Interested parties — both individuals and businesses — essentially “adopt” a child’s holiday wish list. These wish lists are created by each child, with the help of volunteers who oversee each chapter.
“I’m very particular about the wish list,” Fulford said. “We explain to the children that this is like asking somebody else’s mom to help you out. When making these wish lists, we discuss not only the child’s wants but what are some of their needs and we try to meet in the middle.”
The goal of the campaign is to allow each butterfly and dragonfly to open the presents they ask for on Christmas morning. The program goes to extra lengths to ensure each child gets to feel the love and support of their family and community. Last year, there were 75 individuals and 11 businesses throughout Suffolk County that adopted a child’s wish list.
While some adopters take on two or three wish lists at a time, there are still butterflies who are not “adopted,” often the older girls in the program. However, Fulford goes above and beyond to ensure that those butterflies also receive gifts.
“It’s an incredible effort to make sure each girl receives a gift and the organization absorbs the cost of those who aren’t chosen,” Fulford said. “As a not-for-profit organization, specifically a Black-led not-for-profit that is still fairly new, it can be difficult to find support.”
For Fulford, the holiday season is a heavy weight on her shoulders, but it is her dream. She emphasizes the value of consistency — especially during the holiday season — to ensure a sustainable organization that can continue to grow.
“It’s so amazing to see these kids come in and tell us about the magical Christmas that they had,” Fulford said. “I believe that when we give, we are helping people be better people. This is the time of the year when we all can be somebody’s superhero.”
The season of giving takes months to plan for these community organizations. RISE Life Services — a Riverhead-based organization that supports people with developmental and/or physical disabilities — begins to plan its holiday events nearly three months in advance.
Planning for RISE’s holiday party, which is hosted for both the full-time residents who live in the organization’s care facility as well as those who are a part of its day programs, begins in early October. Similar to the “adopt a butterfly” campaign, residents curate their own Christmas list and each year “Santa” — the husband of JoAnn Vitale, the director of day and community services for RISE — makes a visit.
“A lot of our residents can’t go home during the holidays,” said Amanda Belz, RISE’s community relations director. “Some people’s families live out of state or can’t afford it. Some people don’t have any extended family — we are their family. So every year, we make sure to go to lengths to provide a cheerful holiday for them, which takes a lot of organizing.”
RISE also provides a year-round food pantry within their facility, which is open to the public. In an attempt to decrease the number of those affected by food insecurity, RISE’s food pantry has become one of the organization’s largest community endeavors. They now feed over 200 families per week.
The pantry is set up like a typical supermarket, offering a normal shopping experience. Yet, it is 100% run by RISE and stocked with entirely donated items. Residents of RISE Life Services run the food pantry, facilitating inventory and stocking shelves — which implements the soft and social skills taught to them by their day programs.
RISE is in the preliminary stages of planning their first Holiday Gala for the 2024 season. Belz notes that the food pantry gets 50% busier and this gala will directly benefit those needing these services during the season.
For many families, it is an annual tradition to donate supplies or volunteer their time at food pantries. This gala will also be designed to provide a means for these volunteers to continue this support to those in need.
Yet, even with the generous amount of time and items donated, the pantry can still lack vital materials for those who benefit from the services. Belz explained that in addition to the aid they receive, it requires nearly $50,000 to keep the food pantry running annually.
“There’s a lot of things that are often overlooked when people donate food items,” continued Belz. “Like for boxed mac and cheese, not only do you need things like milk and butter to make it taste good, but some of those who use our services don’t have a stove or pot. We’re trying to work towards providing already prepared foods that are easily maintainable for anyone, despite what kind of economic situation they’re in.”
CAST offers North Fork residents a safety net, “envisioning a community that is free from worry about necessities” according to their mission statement. The organization also has its own food pantry that provides a means for local residents to receive a variety of dry goods, cereals, rice and pastas as well as dairy products, eggs and a variety of fresh produce and proteins. CAST currently services over 1,200 families or 3,000 individuals throughout the year.
CAST hosts an array of different activities and fundraisers in their building as well as partnering with multiple local businesses. The largest of which is the “Festival of Trees,” where businesses and community members are invited to decorate trees to auction off with 100% of funds raised going back to CAST, benefiting the organization’s endeavors throughout the year. The event, which occurred in November, included nearly 30 trees and required hundreds of volunteers to come together to provide the necessary organization to ensure the event ran smoothly and was highly successful.
“We live in a special community,” Demeroto said. “So many people come together and make these events possible and I’m very appreciative of the support and our ability to work together to help families during the holidays.”
Throughout December, CAST hosts a toy drive for the nearly 600 children who benefit from the organization. Red bins are placed at businesses from Laurel to Orient Point and even stretching across Peconic Bay to Shelter Island for people to drop off toys, books and clothing for children in need.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Dec. 13 and 14, clients of CAST then have the opportunity to “shop” these donations like they would in a store. Their selected presents can then be wrapped in-house, saving time for those who otherwise may not be able to do so. Demeroto estimates around 200 volunteers will aid in this year’s toy drive.
“It takes a lot of work — hours and hours of preparation,” Demeroto said. “But I don’t think it’s a sacrifice to help during the holidays; it’s a gift to be able to help our neighbors in need. The meaning of the holiday season is human connection and sharing kindness, compassion and love with others.”
The Giving Guide
North Fork organizations that could use your assistance this time of year (and year-round.)
The Butterfly Effect Project
A nonprofit, community-oriented organization aiming to empower young children by giving them the tools to assist in achieving emotionally stable and self-confident futures, in hopes of bringing forth a generation of women (and men) who are strong, independent and knowledgeable.
1018 Northville Turnpike, Riverhead, NY 11901; (631) 591-0759, bepgirls.org
Center for Advocacy, Support and Transformation is a not-for-profit human services agency that provides a safety net for residents in need of food, clothing, energy assistance, health care, housing and education.
53930 Main Rd., Southold, NY 11971; 631-477-1717, castnorthfork.org
East End Arts
EEA’s mission is to bring the arts to everyone and inspire the community through support, advocacy and education.
133 East Main St., Riverhead, NY 11901; 631-727-0900, eastendarts.org
Eastern Long Island Hospital Foundation
Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital and its foundation is committed to delivering excellence in patient care and meeting all the health needs of North Fork and Shelter Island residents.
201 Manor Place, Greenport, NY 11944; 631-477-5164, elihfoundation.org
Group for the East End
A nonprofit organization focused on protecting the nature of the East End through education, conservation and advocacy.
54895 Main Rd., Southold, NY 11971; (631)765-6450, groupfortheeastend.org
Provides safe, warm, temporary shelter to homeless individuals from November through April.
28 Lincoln St., Riverhead, NY 11901; (631) 727-6831, maureenshaven.org
North Fork Animal Welfare League
Operates animal rescue shelters for Southold and Riverhead towns.
269 Peconic Lane, Peconic, NY 11958; (631) 765-1811, northforkanimalwelfareleague.org
North Fork Breast Health Coalition
A group of concerned citizens volunteering and working to encourage and assist in the prevention, early detection and cure of breast cancer through advocacy, awareness, networking and research.
185 Old Country Road, Suite 6, Riverhead, NY 11901; (631) 208- 8889, northforkbreasthealth.org
North Fork Spanish Apostolate
An outreach program for poor and underserved immigrant families.
546 St. John’s Place, Riverhead, NY 11901; (631) 369-4601
North Fork Women’s Resource Center
Provides resources and referrals from everything from domestic violence to health care.
P.O. Box 1231, Cutchogue, NY 11935; (631) 604-0107, nfwrc.northfork.net
Peconic Bay Medical Center Health Foundation
The PBMC Foundation leads the hospital’s fundraising efforts.
1300 Roanoke Ave., Riverhead, NY 11901; (631) 548-6080, pbmchealth.org
RISE Life Services
RISE is a nonprofit organization and community that aids the developmentally disabled empowering them to reach personal goals and lead a fulfilling life.
901 E. Main St., Suite 508, Riverhead, NY 11901; (631)727- 6220, riselifeservices.org